US claims Syria and Iran planning Lebanon coup

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Without revealing its evidence, the US has accused Syria and Iran of trying to topple the Lebanese government and warned the two countries to keep their "hands off". It has also accused Hizbollah of being involved in efforts to bring about the collapse of the elected government.

President George Bush's spokesman said there was "mounting evidence" the two countries were working to undermine the administration headed by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The spokesman, Tony Snow, claimed one of Syria's alleged motives was to prevent the establishment of a tribunal to investigate the assassination of the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last year ­ in which a UN inquiry found Syria to be implicated.

"Support for a sovereign, democratic, and prosperous Lebanon is a key element of US policy in the Middle East," said Mr Snow. "We are therefore increasingly concerned by mounting evidence that the Syrian and Iranian governments, Hizbollah, and their Lebanese allies are preparing plans to topple Lebanon's democratically elected government."

The Bush administration has regularly cited Lebanon as an example of an emerging democracy in the Middle East. "And if you have the example of a stable democracy that's able to fend off terror ­ in the case of Lebanon, from Hezbollah ­ then you have an opportunity to create an entirely different set of circumstances in the Middle East," added Mr Snow. "We're making it clear to everybody in the region that we think that there ought to be hands off the Siniora government; let them go about and do their business."

The White House made its claims ­ for which Mr Snow said he was unable to provide supporting evidence as it was classified ­ a day after the Hizbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah warned Mr Siniora's ruling coalition that it had until the middle of this month to agree on forming a unity government. Hizbollah said if no such agreement were reached there would be protests demanding new elections.

Last night the Syrian embassy in Washington also denied Mr Snow's claims, describing them as ludicrous and unfounded. In a statement it said: " What is happening in Lebanon is a purely domestic political issue. Syria fully respects the sovereignty of Lebanon and does not interfere in its internal politics. Therefore, we call on the US to follow suit and stop instigating the Lebanese people against each other and against other countries."

The accusation by the Bush administration came as Syria's commitment to peace in the Middle East was questioned by Shimon Peres, Israel's Vice-Prime Minister, who said he was sceptical of British efforts to persuade Damascus to end support for radical groups in the region. "I don't feel that the Syrians are clear and honest," he said.

In a break with US foreign policy, Tony Blair earlier this week dispatched his senior foreign policy envoy, Sir Nigel Sheinwald, to Damascus where he held talks with President Bashar al-Assad in the first official Syrian-British talks since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.